One-way ticket to Switzerland: in the past few years, Switzerland has built a reputation for its relaxed euthanasia laws. Dignitas, the organisation helping foreigners and Swiss to end their lives, has been accused of generating a tide of suicide tourism.

AuteurHeddema, Renske

In 2002, I was in the process of setting up an interview with Ludwig Minelli, a lawyer and founder of the suicide-assistive organisation Dignitas. Returning my call, he asked whether I would be free this very morning. Handing over the phone to somebody else, he told me a 'compatriot' wished to speak with me. A Dutch woman came on the line.

Anna (whose real name has been withheld) spoke with difficulty, as if she were drunk. She said Minelli had just accompanied her, along with her husband, to the Dignitas doctor in Zurich. Intimidated, I asked if she was in Switzerland to end her life. She said she was.

She then invited me to meet with her at the Dignitas apartment. Two hours later, I sat at her bedside in the one-room apartment, my microphone on.

The woman was 44 years old, but looked older. Her face and hands were bloated and she was in obvious pain. For years, she had suffered myriad diseases that took all the joy from her life and placed a burden on her family, she said.

In spite of the pain, she chose words with precision and seemed both intelligent and strong willed. She seemed to know exactly what she wanted.

Although none of her diseases had been diagnosed as 'terminal', she'd had enough. She'd explained the decision to her two young daughters in Holland and expressed relief that she would die in a few hours.

Defining deadly

The Swiss have long made a practice of turning to associations of volunteers when they wished to end their life.

At least two charitable organisations offer this form of suicide assistance: Exit has helped Swiss residents since 1982. The association has a list of some 50,000 members who pay a yearly fee to ensure future services.

But it was not until Dignitas began reaching out to clients abroad in 1998 that other nations began to focus on the liberal euthanasia practice in Switzerland. Dignitas has some 7,000 members; a majority of them are foreigners.

Both insist on a rational and premeditated decision by the patient. Much is done to document the illness in advance, but the on-call physician at the clinic has final discretion.

The attending doctor may insist on medical reports that recovery is not possible, and is at liberty to refuse a patient even though organisational guidelines do not make terminal illness a precondition of assistance.

Pre-meditated and rational

Anna did not waver. No doctor had wanted to help her at home, so she was grateful for the Dignitas option. Her husband, speaking softly with her, clearly respected her decision.

But the Dignitas doctor-on-call was not persuaded to proceed. That morning, he had required medical confirmation from her...

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